Analysis of the labour process may be traced back to Karl Marx's interest in the means by which human labour is harnessed in the creation of products for human need. This process is seen to be socially organized and to vary historically between different modes of production. Under capitalism, what appears as a relationship between things or objects in production, is in fact a social relationship between owners of the means of production and their workforce. The key to understanding this relationship lies at the point of production in the management of the labour process.
In Labour and Monopoly Capital (1974), Harry Braverman attempts to update this thesis, by an analysis of the labour process in the era of monopoly capital. His focus is on the so-called degradation of work associated with ever-tightening management control. It is postulated that a subordination and de-skilling of labour will emerge from the combined effects of modern management and new styles of mechanization and automation. The ideal management objective is the removal of all worker control or autonomy, to be achieved through the specialized division and subdivision of tasks. Skilled craft-work is thus reduced to the status of unskilled labour. Taylorism, or scientific management, which developed at the beginning of the 20th century, is seen as the conscious and systematic expression of this process of degradation. It is argued that one overall effect of the degradation of work will be to produce an affinity between intermediate-level workers (such as routine clerical staff) and the mass of the working class.
Factors which Braverman sees as bound up with the changes he postulates are state regulation of the economy, increasing emphasis on planning, the expansion of clerical work and office computerization, and the emergence of dual labour-markets. Precisely how these developments are linked to his central argument is not made clear—though this is also true of some related criticisms.
Braverman's conceptualization of the process of change has been queried in that it represents a unilinear trend, rather than a complex of factors, which may not necessarily cohere. There could, for example, be different patterns in different industries. Similarly, he is attacked for accepting one model of management as universal, when in fact there are many and varied strategies. For example, bureaucratized management could offer the possibility of incorporating the workforce into the management process, in order to ensure their co-operation. Some contributors to the debate have attempted to extend Braverman's original thesis along these lines. (A good example of the post-Braverman treatment of these issues is R. Edwards's Contested Terrain, 1979.) Other questions revolve around the nature and definition of skill, which is felt to allow more scrutiny than Braverman allows. The connection between the demise of craft skills and the process of rationalization is argued to be insufficiently explored, whilst the de-skilling hypothesis itself is apparently challenged by a dependence on newly emergent skills. On the specific issue of class relations, Braverman's account seems to under-emphasize the possibility of worker opposition to tightening management control, especially where there are strong trade unions; whilst, conversely, his equating of worker skill with weaker managerial control has been challenged. His analysis is particularly limited since it addresses only the objective nature of class relations, not the subjective experience of the working class. Again, sympathetic commentators have tried to rectify these shortcomings, in a sustained programme of empirical research. (See, for example, M. Burawoy, The Politics of Production, 1975). These criticisms are, however, testament to how influential Braverman's work has been in setting an agenda for debate, much of which has continued to be framed in the original terms of his argument. See also proletarianization.